How To Find Syria’s Chemical Weapons

An international team of weapons experts is at work in Syria on the job of finding and destroying the nation’s chemical stockpile.

But the job will be difficult and possibly dangerous, says Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterrey Institute for International Studies.

Smithson, an expert in chemical and biological weapons, told Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that Syrian President Bashar Assad has proven untrustworthy in the past and is unlikely to be completely up front with inspectors about the location and extent of his chemical munitions.

He may also allow the joint team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations to come in harm’s way, Smithson says.

“The UN Security Council put the onus for providing security for these inspections on the Assad government, and when the investigators were there previously, it’s very likely that the Assad government turned snipers loose,” she says. “This is a dicey proposition, not in the least part because in the midst of Syria we also have Hamas, Hezbollah and al Qaeda.”

Assad could also be scrambling to make his chemical weapons hard to find.

“If Assad is true to form — and previously he has stalled and delayed and done everything he could to hide evidence of his nuclear weapons program — now’s the time for him to be moving things about and perhaps hiding what he wants to try keep away from the inspectors,” Smithson said.

Making a challenging circumstance even more precarious, the team is operating under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime agreed to last month. The convention is designed for disarmament by cooperating partners, not states whose acquiescence has been coerced.

Both the convention and the UN resolution allowing access to Assad’s weapons leave the Assad government the right to declare areas off-limits to inspectors, Smithson says.

“He can declare some areas, ‘Hey, don’t go over there, that’s where my conventional weapons are. No, I won’t open that door or that file drawer because those are records and things that are unrelated to treaty compliance.’ ” she explained. “He can fence with inspectors a great deal. I do expect given his past behavior to try to hide evidence and maybe try to get away with what he can.”

Intelligence experts may see through such smokescreens, she added. “All I can say is that previously there have been times when intelligence about chemical and biological weapons programs have been grossly off the mark.”

Smithson expects the team will make significant progress in destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile. The U.S. and Russia have powerful resources at hand to neutralize the weapons.

“There are a number of assets that the United States and also Russia can bring to bear to destroy bulk chemical warfare agents and even chemcial weapons munitions,” she says. “These assets involved cargo container-sized equipment that will put water in the agent and put other chemicals to degrade it with great effectiveness.”

But Smithson is cautious.

“I’m just not sure that Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda are going to cooperate with this,” she says. “So it’s just difficult every which way you look, but there are definitely practical things that can be brought to bear.”

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.